Tuesday, June 19, 2007

University of Liberia Student Protest

The next time I hear that some angry group has started a riot, I'm going to take it with a giant spoonful of salt.

I was there in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today, when hundreds of University of Liberia students took to the streets. They did it in support of their professors who are on strike until they get the 9 months of salary owed them.

Here's how events really unfolded, at least from where I stood:

The beginning of a peaceful protest. The students were chanting "No more rhetoric - we wan lehn! No more rhetoric - we wan lehn!" I took this picture from my car, intending to make a sad commentary about the students and the obviously deplorable state of education as evidenced by the way they talked. I didn't think I would see the group again, but a little later in the afternoon I had to go back in their direction.
Police were standing on the Capitol By-pass and redirecting cars to the Jallah Town Road. Not understanding what was going on, I drove past them and headed towards Tubman Boulevard, the main road (the only road) that goes past the University and all the way through Monrovia. Near the Mansion, Police tried to stop me again, but by then I could see the crowd up ahead and told them I wanted to go and take pictures.
Students held up placards and yelled out their convictions and pleas. A couple of memorable messages were "No University, No Liberia", and "Give Me Education or Give Me Death." I spoke first to the guy who had the "No University" placard. Tom T., a sophomore in Public Administration. He told me, very passionately, what the protest was all about and what he meant by his message: If Liberia's highest institution of learning does not get what it needs for education, Liberia will fail as a nation.
The arrival of some armed security personnel in vehicles with a mounted gun caused a change in the crowd. Students seemed to become more fired up, and some started addressing their concerns directly to the police, as if they caused the problem or could actually do something about it.
I didn't understand the show of force. Guns for ex-combatants demanding money, yes. But for students asking for a decent education??
The trouble started when the Nigerian UNMIL soldiers arrived and penetrated the crowd, unprovoked.
Fights and confusion broke out as bewildered students were pushed and beaten. I could not believe my eyes.
Students jumped over the fence and fled back to the University, a handful of them throwing stones and a glass bottle in anger.

As I walked away from the scene with another photographer and the last of the crowd, more officers rushed at us, one of them hitting my colleague's camera with a baton. Moments later, as the photographer was pointing out the culprit to other security personnel, a crazed, blood-thirsty UNMIL soldier came running up and assaulted him with his rifle - hit him with it quite viciously, no questions asked.

When I got back to town and heard that University students had "started a riot", I could only shake my head in sorrow.

I'm still floored by the behavior of the "Peacekeepers", but also very proud of the Liberia National Police Officers who for the most part were calm and respectful from beginning to end.


Anonymous said...

With the kind of low fees students are paying at the University of Liberia, if anyone is learning anything useful at that institution it is a miracle.

The state of education in Liberia is pathetic, to say the least. At the U.L. you have students teaching students. The degree is, for the most part, not worth the paper on which it is written.

It is reasonable to expect the government to provide good primary and secondary education at no cost. I think that should be the focus of the government. Anyone desirous of pursuing higher education should pay for it.

I congratulate the LNP for their proper deportment during this incident.

I understand that U.L. teachers are demanding "research allowance". I don't know of any university that gives "research allowance" to its faculty. One writes a research proposal and one's proposal is evaluated. The evaluation is usually based on prior publications in reputable journals (peer-review journals), the strength of one's proposal or prior research achievements. When the grant is approved, it is given to the institution, not the principal investigator (PI) and his fellow investigators. The university then uses the grant to fund research related activities. Apparently, the U.L. faculty believes that "research allowance" is money that is given without any competitive process. They somehow believe that they should get "research money" even if they are not engaged in any research. No wonder higher education is in a sorry state in Liberia today.

elle* said...

True, true, and true.

Students at the University of Liberia pay only LD$100 per credit. At the current rate of 60:1, that's US$1.67

Each class is 3 credits, for a total of US$5. Someone taking a full 18 credits per semester is paying US$30, or $60 per year.

Many high schools here charge more than that, and in my work I have found that some students don't plan to go on to college because they naturally assume that higher education will cost more than secondary.

One of the complaints I heard at the protest is that Ellen said some of the teachers at U.L. weren't qualified to teach, and some of the students weren't qualified to be there. I don't know exactly what she said, but again, true and true: those are the facts. Lots of students graduate from U.L. and still can't write a fitting sentence. (I actually know some of them!)

Solutions? Teacher Training, Better primary and secondary school education, higher fees, and EMPLOYMENT or support for Income Generating Activities (IGAs) so that students/parents can afford the higher fees.

Anonymous said...

Oh well, one of the reasons I read blogs so often, and yours in particular. I remember years back when a Nigerian Ecomog solider nearly killed my brother on Duport road were we lived during the war. They are noted to be very ruthless.

I am amazed that the police were very calm during the whole issue that unfolded. What did the poor guy do. He was only trying to get a shot.

Well, I hope the situation is resolved amicably. and you be careful out there.

elle* said...


When I told other people about what I saw, no one was surprised by the Nigerians. They are indeed known to be ruthless, though I had never seen it before myself.

And the Liberian Police -- sad to say, a videographer friend who was also out with us at the protest says some of them were just as bad (and he got it on tape). Oh well, as I said, I was only sharing what I saw from where I stood.

In the meantime, the University is still closed and the students are demanding its reopening, plus the release of those who were arrested during the "riot". They also want President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to apologize for making "demeaning statements against the faculty."

Today's Inquirer newspaper (June 21) carries a story entitled "PUL Condemns Flogging of Journalists." Quoting from the story: "The [Press Union of Liberia] says it was not surprised that government security forces were involved in such attack on the press because they are notorius for such atrocious actions, but that UNMIL soldiers were participants in the flogging of journalists present a gloomy picture for the new democratic order."

Anonymous said...

Press group slams Liberia, UN

DAKAR - A global press freedom group has accused Liberian and United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces of beating up journalists covering student protest marches, prompting an investigation by the UN mission in Liberia.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) alleged that national police and the UN mission (Unmil) forces assaulted Daylue Goah of the privately owned daily New Democrat and Evans Ballah of the twice-weekly Public Agenda.

"The two journalists were attacked by members of a joint Liberian National Police and Unmil unit, who tore up their ID cards and forced them to delete the photos from their digital cameras," said RSF.

"Such police brutality against journalists is disgraceful and unacceptable," the press freedom group said, adding that the law-enforcement agents "clearly lost control of the situation and used disproportionate violence."

"We are amazed by the clear lack of professionalism and self-control displayed by troops acting under UN authority," RSF said urging punishment for the perpetrators.

Unmil spokesman Ben Malor did not confirm the attacks but said an investigation has been launched into the matter.

"The mission has ordered an investigation into these reports and allegations," Malor told AFP by telephone from Monrovia. Unmil has the responsibility to ensure public order in Liberia.

Goah and Ballah were covering a University of Liberia student demonstration against conditions on campus.

The protests later degenerated into rioting spilling onto the streets of the capital near the presidential palace, said RSF.

"Unmil does not condone inappropriate actions in quelling demonstrations or protests," said Malor.

This was in the African's Sunday times. I feel really bad for the situation that took place.

I am seriously thinking about coming home and doing some volunteer work for your organization in the not so distant future. I feel like u all are doing a great job. Keep up the good work, and be careful out there..

I have a question for you, do u think the current police director is actually doing a good job? I doubt her ability to lead and develop the force we all envision. I have a friend who is the head of training at the academy, I will try to contact her and ask her how much they stress peaceful interaction with the community. The reason is I read a lot of ex-pats blogs and the picture that is een painted is is not beautiful at all.

Kerrie said...

Hey !

Really enjoying your blog. It is incredible how little training some of these forces have in de-escalating a riot rather than escalating it. I have even seen similar things happen before my own eyes in my home country, Canada.

I think in addition to all the great points that have been raised above, there is a broader issue of police/peacekeepers being trained for an essentially military role of violence rather than the ability to calm crowds and individuals down.

PLEASE KEEP POSTING your pictures and stories! My favourite one is "Let Justice Be Done to All"...when I was in Liberia this summer I thought of that post when I drove past the Justice building.